Friday, January 28, 2011

The Dreaming Imagination

I've always dreamt, and often remembered the dreams, but recently its been different somehow. My dreams have been more vivid, more detailed, and I've often remembered them - through waking early - in immense detail. Rather than the detritus of the day, or a representation of my worries or anxieties, I'm beginning to think that my creative imagination is increasingly taking place whilst I'm asleep - pushed into that space by the prosaic pressures of every day. As I get older, I get less time, rather than more; things get harder, energy reduces.

Also, recently I've been away quite alot, and being in a different place seems to accentuate the dreaming imagination. The stimuli of new places, but also the attendant pressure on negotiating an unfamiliar space - and sometimes language - seems to make the waking day imagination-free zones, where all my mental abilities are concentrated on the every day. I know I'm not saying anything that many people haven't always faced; particularly parents of young children; but I guess I've always lived my life attempting some kind of psychic balance. I've enjoyed having the day-to-day stability of working, as well as having to; but I've also found at various points that the bit that gets squeezed out is your creativity, your art.

I was speaking to an artist friend in the week and he's recently gone back to working 4 days a week, after managing to get down to 3. And the economic necessity is one thing, but the art is what suffers, falls away. I sometimes think artists should be encouraged to have sabbaticals - three months here, a week there - rather than try and balance the necessary mundaneities of life with a regular "making." Yet our somewhat brutal economic world doesn't often allow that.

So I'm finding myself exhausted. Last week rushing off to Amsterdam with work, next week to Brussels. Such trips are enjoyable, and productive, but they also eat into one's everyday routines, take a chunk out of the week. Life you try and fit in and around things. There's a pay off - there's stimuli in travel, but you need time to reflect, to process. After my reading the week before last, I was mentally and physically exhausted.

My hotel in Amsterdam, Hotel Aalders, was on a street next to the Rijkksmuseum, and made out of two 1904 townhouses, merged into one. There I was on the top floor, and it was only on the second day that I realised there were two staircases in the building, rather than just one with two branches, like some real-life Escher. Amsterdam was wet and grey but grand nonetheless. The elegance of the city's streets always noticeable. Waking in the middle of the night, with rain pouring down outside, I'm not sure if I was a dream I began writing down, or simply an idea that had crystallised. In longhand I must have written between two and three thousand coherent words of a fully formed story before I fell back asleep. In my waking hours, I don't necessarily need to find the imagination to complete it, just the time...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

After the Reading

Reading from our Salt chapbooks on Wednesday at the Anthony Burgess foundation in Manchester, both myself and JT Welsch were overwhelmed by the size of the audience, and their kind appreciation. Poetry works well when it is well presented, and when there's an interest in what's being read - and I hope the evening managed to accomplish those apparently simple, but often difficult to achieve, aims. For every friend who couldn't make it, someone else seemed to turn up in their place, and because our own individual audiences don't crossover that much I hope both of us widened the interest in our poetry. Clare Conlon has kindly written a review of the night on her blog.

In today's Guardian, having awarded the new Picador prize last week to the unknown (to these ears at least), Richard Meier, Don Paterson makes the point that "so well-connected is the community of poets that you're never more than two or three degrees of separation from Seamus Heaney."

The column's important, I think, as one take on the "state of the poetry scene" at the moment - and its interesting that Paterson, both prize winning poet, and one of the gatekeepers, makes the point that middle aged editors are "in danger of publishing only young poets who sound like the now-middle-aged ones they grew up with." Its good that he mentions efforts by Salt and others to "tap into" the grassroots network, and the Picador prize sounds a good attempt to do something similar. It might even be a perfect next step for someone looking to follow up a debut pamphlet!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading Reminder

Just a reminder that I am reading from "Playing Solitaire for Money" along with JT Welsch reading from "Orchids" on Wednesday 19th at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Cambridge Street in Manchester. Arrive for 6.30pm for a glass of wine and a chance to look at our books - and we'll start reading about quarter to all being well. Not sure of the order yet - we'll decide that on the night! Look forward to seeing old friends and new. More details if you need them here or download the flyer.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The State of the Short Story...

Reading the 5 stories shortlisted for last year's National Short Story Award, (they can be downloaded here, but you need to buy the book to read them, I have to thank shortlisted author Jon McGregor for the elegant Comma Press book which he gave away in a Twitter competition) it is tempting to read them with an eye on the "state of the short story." I think this would be wrong for two reasons. First, the BBC's involvement must have an impact on the type of stories that make the final shortlist. "Most of us, I think, recognize that a good story is, in part, one that you can hear in your head" says James Naughtie in his introduction. To which one might reply "really?" Certainly all 5 of this year's winners you can imagine making good radio, which is not true of all stories. Secondly, in winnowing down what was probably quite a large shortlist, I imagine that the winning selection are those which are most obviously achieved, and if there's not exactly conformity on the list, neither are they particularly diverse.

Three of these stories, by David Constantine, Aminatta Forna and Sarah Hall are highly specific on their location (the first two even in their respective titles, "Tea at the Midland" and "Haywards Heath") whilst Jon McGregor's and Helen Oyeyemi may not name their locations, but are very firmly placed. Only one of the stories, McGregor's is anything but realist, and his, along with the winner by David Constantine are the only two that are obviously stand-alone pieces - the others could easily be extracts from a longer work. All apart from McGregor's are anecdotal; I don't mean that in a bad way, rather that they are recognisable episodes, in recognisable situations. I thought all but one of the stories would probably have made any longlist that I'd have put together, simply because of the quality of their writing, the fifth was more prosaically written. I can understand why David Constantine's won, as its probably the most contained, possibly the most accomplished of the five, though I found it was also the one story that had definite designs on the reader. In "Tea at the Midland" a couple are having tea at the Midland hotel in Morecambe overlooking surfers in the bay. We are overhearing their conversation. They are having an affair, or rather, this may be the end of the affair. The scenario is a familiar one, there's more than an echo of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", yet I'm not sure I believe in the characters. My favourite of the 5 is probably Sarah Hall's "Butcher's Perfume", a perfectly formed coming-of-age story that embeds its revelation naturally. I should listen to the BBC version, to see if they had to censor its robust language. Aminatta Forna's story, "Haywards Heath" is more a radio play than a story, and indeed was broadcast. She's the one writer I'd not previously heard of from the list. Jon McGregor's "If it keeps on raining" is in a style that would be familiar if you've read his novels, as in those, he carefully unwraps a mystery, never quite giving it all away. It's a delicate high wire act, and perhaps is the only one of the five that hints at the short story as a non-realistic as well as a realistic form, whilst its "block" paragraphs increase the awareness of the story's poetry. Lastly, Helen Oyeyemi's "My Daughter the Racist" is a serious story, set in an unnamed third world country, which nonetheless makes you laugh.

Thinking of recent short stories I've heard or read, there's nothing here as amusing as David Gaffney's Powerpoint stories, or as mystical as Clare Massey's wonderful fairytale, "Feather Girls" , or as pungently raw as Toby Litt's recent Manchester Prize Winner "John and John". Certainly worthy of our attention, and always identifying a well-tuned shortlist, the BBC's national prize isn't - and probably doesn't want to be - the place to go to check the pulse of the British short; but it's a decent enough benchmark for quality, which all writers of short stories would be well advised to read, or at least listen to.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Paradox of the Writer

The painter at least has his studio; and on occasion models to paint, and there is a physical product, there at the end, that he can do something with. The musician is one of a group or even if a solo artist, might have a manager, an engineer, an occasional collaborator. Besides, their audience will be right in front of them, or, at worst, ignoring them from the bar. The actor lives for the stage, but, because actors are what they are, will always be hanging around with other actors one way or another.

The paradox of the writer is that he or she is only deserved of that epithet when out of view. Writing takes place alone, and, in an era of electronic communication, offline - which might be the quietest place in the world, these days. So, I've spent this week trying to use my time as a writer should. I've not actually written anything of course, that would be expecting too much. But I've gone back and forth over a story I wrote in a flurry of activity one evening in Ghent in December. Excited at knocking off a whole story in a quiet hotel-bound evening I'd forgot that there are no shortcuts: the quickly written story takes forever to revise, the deep thinking happening after the first draft, not, as is usually my case, before.

I've done other things this week - including some music, which, being the kind of person I am, is also a solitary task for me, but at least there's a "something" at the end of it. I've also picked over a few poems, though poetry is something I can do whilst doing other things, in transit. It's just that poems are unmanageable. I can't make them appear; nor make them good. Its with relief that I've been able to spend half a day arranging my reading with JT Welsch on 19th January at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

I've also been reading, but not quite as much as I thought I had. I've read two short novels, and bits of literary biography; a few poems. I even watched a film, the good, but generic "The Hurt Locker". Time is running out. The day job resumes on Monday, with all the mental static that comes with it. Before I know it it will be spring, another season gone. The paradox of being a writer is that you only feel you are a writer when you are at your least visible. I could sit in a local cafe drinking coffee and typing on my laptop, but the battery's got about two hours in it, which is hardly enough to write a shopping list never mind get back into a novel. The hard work happens here, at this desk, in splendid isolation. And, sad to say, when I'm writing this blog, or twittering or on Facebook, or commenting on Elizabeth Baines' debate about creative writing or reading George Szirtes musings on "subject" in poetry I sure aint writing.